Everyone likes a good crime story, and the annals of cinema are littered with excellent tales of crooks, thieves, and felons making their way through life on the wrong side of the law. But film has taught us to think of guys when we think of career criminals, from The Godfather to Mean Streets, Heat to Scarface, The French Connection to Snatch; do a Google search for “great crime movies,” and you’ll end up with the impression that there’s no room in the game for women.
Except that there is. Crime films might be dominated by notorious men, but from the noir films of the 1940’s to the seedy thrillers of Brian De Palma’s career, there are plenty of wicked women on celluloid worth admiring, too: Aileen Wuornos of Monster, the girls of Spring Breakers, Bonnie in Arthur Penn’s classic Bonnie and Clyde, to name but a few.
So to honor the ladies who kill, cheat, and steal to survive - or just because it’s fun - we decided to put up our picks for the 5 most badass female movie criminals:
6 O-Ren Ishii, Kill Bill
She’s half-Chinese-American, half-Japanese, and if you give her any guff about her heritage she’ll lop off your noggin: she’s O-Ren Ishii, a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1. Before signing on for Tarantino’s two-part genre-blender, Lucy Liu starred in two Charlie’s Angels films as well as Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, so she already had past experience with action. But Kill Bill is an action flick of another stripe than these, and O-Ren is a very different character from Agent Sever or Alex Munday.
O-Ren’s story begins with a violent act - the murder of her mother and and commences from there with rigorous martial training in the pursuit of revenge. After disposing of the men who killed her parents, O-Ren honed her skills as an assassin and eventually took over the Tokyo Yakuza with the help of the enigmatic Bill. Considering her background and her resume, it’s no wonder why O-Ren is so fiercely defensive over her status as the boss.
5 Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity
Off camera, people knew Barbara Stanwyck for her kindness and openness. But on stage, beneath the lights, she solidified her thespian reputation as one of film noir’s greatest femme fatales in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The movie remains one of the best of its make even today; it’s a masterclass in lighting, notably for its use of “venetian blinds” effects, but the center of this grisly tale of murder and deceit is Stanwyck, who vamps with cunning, predatory ease.
In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a married woman who approaches insurance salesman Walter Neff about taking out an insurance policy on her husband, and without his knowledge. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out that she has murder on her mind, but Neff can’t resist her wiles and winds up aiding and abetting her deadly plan. He’s not her first victim, either, nor is he her last - she’s a real black widow, and she would have gotten away with it all if not for the little man in Edward G. Robinson’s stomach.
4 Stoney, Cleo, T.T., and Frankie, Set it Off
Imagine this: You’re working at your day job when all of a sudden, a handful of armed men burst in and hold up the place, going so far as to kill an innocent bystander unprovoked. You make it out of the horrific scene alive, but then, to add insult to injury, your boss unceremoniously fires you for knowing one of the assailants. What do you do? Where do you go? Who do you turn to? In Set it Off, Vivica A. Fox decides to get even, and recruits her friends - Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, and Kimberly Elise - to tag along for a crime spree.
They’re a pretty terrific quartet, robbing bank after bank as John C. McGinley tries to keep up with their larceny. But Set it Off isn’t remarkable just for using four tough-as-nails women as its leads; it’s also deeply concerned with the social stresses that set them on a lawless path and cares a great deal about their disenfranchisement. Like a certain Ridley Scott film (Thelma & Louise) that inspired F. Gary Gray’s female crime drama, Set it Off lets its principals adopt a criminal stance, but never stops considering their humanity.
3 Mother Russia, Kick-Ass 2
Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2 is much unloved compared to Matthew Vaughn’s better-received progenitor, Kick-Ass, for a laundry list of reasons. But the 2013 sequel does have one thing going for it: Olga Kurkulina, the Uzbekistan-born athlete and actress who plays Mother Russia, the top henchwoman to budding, untested crime lord Chris D’Amico. Kick-Ass 2 indulges in bad taste for bad taste’s sake, but when Kurkulina gets to do her thing, the film becomes shockingly watchable.
Take, for example, Mother Russia’s big scene dispatching a handful of hapless cops during a suburban melee. Here, she demonstrates a flair for the dramatic and a fondness for Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive; her weaponized lawn mower does a number on a pair of officers, while a molotov gasoline canister and a car door make for nifty improvised armaments. Everything else she does the old-fashioned way. Eventually, Mother Russia meets her (spectacular) end at the hands of Chloe Grace Moretz, but until that time she puts on a hell of a show, whether she’s breaking the law or eating her prison cell mate.
2 Thelma Yvonne Dickinson & Louise Elizabeth Sawyer, Thelma & Louise
Back when Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise first hit theaters, advertisements painted it as a breezy, upbeat female road trip movie. But Scott’s (and screenwriter Callie Khouri’s) story of downtrodden femininity is anything other than lighthearted; Khouri’s narrative is shaped by an attempted rape that ends in the would-be rapist’s murder, and concludes when her two leading ladies drive a Thunderbird off of a cliff. Not exactly blithesome stuff, that, but Thelma & Louise’s darker core is undoubtedly a part of its critical and commercial success.
The film made decent bank and scored a handful of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress nods for Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. (Khouri herself deservedly won Best Screenwriter.) It also managed to tell an uncompromising tale of female experiences. Thelma and Louise live the last two days of their lives on their terms, but to do that they’ve got to break a few dozen laws and deal with systemic patriarchy. (Kudos to Harvey Keitel for his sympathies.) There are lots of ways to be badass, but literally taking your life into your own hands, as our heroines do in Thelma & Louise’s climax, might be the most badass of all.
The titles don't stop there, either: back in 1992, Sharon Stone showed just how much impact one's choice in seating posture can have in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct, while Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster have both tried their hands at street racing and carjacking in the The Fast and the Furious franchise. (And while Barbara Stanwyck might rank among the best of film noir's femme fatales, she's not the only lethal, plotting woman in the genre's history, either.)
But you all might have your own ideas about who the baddest, best female movie criminals are, and if you do, feel free to share them in the comments!